Ethical Issues with Celebrity Foundations and People Plagiarizing Your Mother’s Obituary – Bonnie Upright

Joining me on this week’s episode is Bonnie Upright, the vice president of corporate communications for Coldwell Banker Vanguard. A former agency owner who has done outstanding work with celebrity foundations, and one of the most positive PR professionals with whom I have ever worked.

She discusses a number of key ethics issues including:

Why don’t you tell us about yourself and your career?

I am out of the Jacksonville, Florida area. Been here most of my life actually. I attended University of North Carolina at Asheville, which we call, “UNC Almost,” for those of us who couldn’t get into Chapel Hill. My goal, honestly, was to be a sports journalist on ESPN. But back in the old days you used to have to carry a deck and a camera, and that’s a lot. I decided I’m too fancy for that and I don’t want to do that.

I fell into public relations in a crazy kind of way. I was actually working in video production at the time, here in Jacksonville. Got married, started a family, and needed something that was a little more traditional hours and fell into nonprofit public relations with a sports edge. I worked with a local nonprofit here in Jacksonville that was founded by an NBA player and general managers and fell in love with the nonprofit stuff. I did public relations and fundraising and everything that goes with working in a nonprofit, which basically is you’re wearing every hat. Then that sort of set my career off on a unique path of working with celebrities, athletes.

Now I find myself in the real estate business, like you said, doing corporate communications for a Coldwell Banker brokerage here in the Jacksonville, Florida area. It’s funny because originally, I was recruited by a friend who was like, “You would be an amazing realtor.” I was like, “No, I don’t think so. But you know what? Let talk to you.” About 30 minutes in, I’m like, “No, I don’t want to do that. That’s not what I want to do.”

Quite honestly, because living in the nonprofit life, especially with sports and celebrities, you’re on call all the time. You never know what’s going to happen, is someone out running around where they shouldn’t be? Is someone getting traded? Just crazy things happen. So I thought, you know, I’ve lived that life for a long time, and ended up kind of writing a job description for myself and talking my way into a position with this brokerage here. Which was kind of cool, and I liked it because it’s different. It’s internal, A lot of internal comms, which I’ve never actually really done. It’s been a stretch for me and now I’m doing a lot of digital marketing quite honestly.

Looking back over your career, what is the most difficult ethical challenge you ever confronted at work?

The most difficult ethical was early in my career. It was with a small nonprofit organization. There were things going on behind the scenes, financially, that were wrong. There’s no other way to say it, they were wrong. Having to know that information yet still be the public face of an organization certainly was a challenge. I was young in my career; I was a new mom had my first child and I made $16,000 a year.

I did get a beeper. That was written into my whole contract because “Oh, you can be available all the time.” Hilarious now to think about, but I needed my job. I needed my job.

So, I didn’t say anything at first. Looking back, I wish I had stood up sooner. But when you need a job, and you’ve got a brand new baby, your perspective and your priorities change a little bit. I hate to say it, I hate to not practice what I preach, but as someone new in PR, I didn’t speak up. I didn’t do what in my heart I knew was, was the right thing to do. So it was yucky. It was really yucky, and it was reason I left. I finally couldn’t do it anymore. Could not have the knowledge I had, could not do what I had to do on the public facing side, and decided to leave and went to agency life.

What is your advice to the young professional that is making little money and is caught in that situation?

The stand up, do right person in me now says walk away, but I get it, it’s hard to do. It is just a different environment. But I think you need to know where your hard line is in the sand. What it is you are willing to do, or say, or be aware of? Where is your particular line? Because at the end of the day all we have is our integrity. That’s all I’ve got. I don’t make widgets. I don’t make something that I can go on Etsy and sell. It isn’t what we do as PR people. What I have is my name, what I have is my reputation, what I have my integrity.

Again, with age comes wisdom. So for the newer folks, I think it is truly knowing who you are, and the sooner you can figure that out, the better. Sometimes it’s not about finding out who you are, it’s finding out who you aren’t. Sometimes once you know that what you won’t do, or what you can’t do, or what you don’t like doing, life gets a little bit easier. Maybe not smooth sailing 100%, but when you know what you’re not good at, not comfortable with, not okay with, then I think paths become a little clearer.

I don’t want to preach and be one of those people that also says don’t go to Starbucks, because that’s just silly. You need a little fun in your life, and if your fun in your life is Tito’s and cranberry, or it’s your Starbucks latte, that’s okay. I think this next generation has a much truer feeling of who they are. I think because the microscope can be on you so quickly, the smart ones have figured that out early on.

I think back to being a young professional and having that little chip on my shoulder. You’re the new person and you know everything because you’re a recent grad. Getting over that is a big deal. You’ve got to move past that.

I don’t buy this whole participation trophy thing in this generation; it just feels like the world’s been handed to them. Are there some folks? Yes. Are there folks my age right now feeling the same way? Absolutely. But I want to say, get over yourself. You’re not that fantastic. You’re not that great. You’re no better than the rest of us. There are bad apples everywhere, or folks who make the rest of us look bad no matter and I don’t care what industry you’re in.

Those mistakes you make do make you who you are. I would say not even until really the last 10 years, did I feel comfortable owning a mistake. I mean, I think I was 40 before I really was like, you know what, it didn’t kill me to own that. It didn’t kill me to wrap my arm around it and embrace it and go, “I really screwed that up in a big way. Let me figure out how to fix it and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

It’s just so important and nobody really cares. That’s the beauty of America. We love a good redemption story. We’ll forgive anybody for anything. My God, OJ Simpson’s on Twitter and everybody loves it. I mean really, we forgive everything.

Speaking of celebrities. One of the things that fascinates me as the guy who lives in the tech PR world, is you’re working with celebrities and foundations, are there ethical issues people should be aware of if they’re wanting to work with celebrities and nonprofit foundations?

I have been very lucky. Obviously, this is when I throw in my Jacksonville Jaguars fandom. I have worked with a lot of NFL players, primarily out of Jacksonville and a handful of PGA tour players.

So, here’s the deal. A lot of athletes, and I’m making a blanket statement here, right? But a lot of athletes, or often times it’s an agent, will say, “I’m going start a foundation.”

The first question I always as is “Why are you going start a foundation?”  Because quite honestly, there are a lot of nonprofits out there doing amazing, amazing things. Once you to start diluting that market a little bit it becomes a challenge. Not only are you fighting for dollars, but you’re fighting for attention. You’re fighting for resources and board members.

So, my philosophy has always been, I want them to do it for the right reason. The reason should be very personal. It’s more impactful that way. If their mom had breast cancer, or their mother had lung cancer, or they grew up in inner city neighborhood and didn’t have a lot of opportunity, whatever that thing is.

If I get the call or I get an email on, “Yeah, I heard that I can hire my auntie or my grandmamma. I could put her on payroll.” I go, “No, that’s not what I do.” There are people that do that. Certainly there are celebrities and athletes who go down that path. I would say quite honestly it is not as many as people think.

I think there probably is a perception that a lot of these charitable foundations, funded and founded by celebrities, or athletes, are just scam. They’re really not. It is more often that they are doing really great work in an impactful way, and people need to kind of give them the benefit of the doubt. Here’s the thing, it’s also easy to find out. You can go to GuideStar and you can pull up the 990s. You can pull up tax information on any nonprofit, and you can see how much money they’re making, how much money they’re giving away, how much they pay their staff.

But from an ethical perspective the first thing to find out is are you doing it for the right reasons? If you’re doing it to hide money, hire your entourage, because your agent said you just need to or because you need to shelter some money. Then no, that’s not what it is.

Now I will say there have been times when it was early on in my career where you had personal issues. You might have an athlete who comes to an event, not with their legally wedded wife, perhaps. That athlete might ask you to please don’t say anything. Now this is long before the camera phones and social media, any of that. Those kinds of things did happen. Or You could hear what was happening at an after party that was not your event, your event was over. But someone and their friends had an after party that might’ve gotten a little out of hand.

You know those kinds of things happen. I mean you read it, you see it on TMZ Sports, Barstool, whatever. It really, I’ve just always been very, very careful, because at the end of the day, a foundation, a nonprofit, it is still a business. Just because it is a 501c3 does not mean it is not a legit business. There is paperwork, there are tax reporting, there is minutes, there is officers, there’s articles.

I’ve never been willing to compromise my personal integrity in my relationships with any of them, to do something that was an untoward. I will say once I left an organization that did have some iffy things, I just wasn’t comfortable with. Long answer, but there’s plenty of ways that folks can get into trouble, and it really just comes down to what is right and what is wrong. It’s that simple.

I want to dig a little bit deeper kind of into the after parties. If you see a client who is an alcoholic, and they started drinking again at the after party – I see that as safeguarding confidences. But if it is a case of abuse or sexual harassment, do you consider that to be a different element when it comes to safeguarding confidences?

That’s a great question. I think you’re right, there’s that internal and sort of external piece, and I think part of it depends on the relationship that I have with them. In my role with these nonprofit organizations, it wasn’t about them as an athlete. So, my representation of them had nothing to do with what they did on a field, or on a golf course. So, if there was the potential for behavior, or activities that would come back on the foundation then absolutely I’m going to step up and say something, absolutely. For a number of these, I was executive director, my name was on that tax return. My name is on that website. My name is on every request letter.

Now, a big piece of it, too, was the relationship I had with their entourage. When I say entourage, it’s not necessarily the hanger-oners that you see on TV. It’s agents, it’s their own publicist, because many of them do have a separate publicist or their marketing person.  Really, for me, it always came back to how does this reflect on the foundation?

I’ll say again, I’m very fortunate. In the past 15 years, all the ones I’ve worked with never had any issues, In fact, one of the things I actually did, and then counseled a lot of these athletes or agents on were, any deal you do – say a shoe deal – I want 10% coming back to the foundation. That sponsor, I don’t care who it is, Nike, Adidas, UnderArmour, whoever, whatever they’re going to pay you is great. To do all the stuff, wear it on the court, wear it on the field, whatever, but they’re going to kick in another 10% to your foundation to show a good faith.

They’re supporting what you’re doing off the field. It’s walking the walk and talking to talk all the same time. There were number of athletes, one or two, who started that years ago and I kind of shamelessly stole that philosophy. Because if you’re willing to kick in, millions of dollars on an apparel deal, what’s 75 grand, a hundred grand to a foundation that is doing good work? Then the real fun became in how you then actually leverage that, and not just take the check and cash it. But “Okay, well now I’ve suddenly got Nike as a partner. Well holy crap.” That’s the game changer for a foundation. When you can use a that name, or give away that product at a golf tournament.

It’s a very delicate balance and you’re dealing with egos. Egos are on the side of everybody. They’re at my side, they’re agents, they’re the athletes themselves, family. You’ve often times got family members who are involved in the management of the foundation, which I actually encourage, because it’s another set of eyes and it’s somebody who can maybe have the same conversation, but from a different perspective. Also, I’m a woman. There’s a thing there in sports with being a woman, and having those conversations both with athletes, and with sponsors, and agents, et cetera. Sometimes I have to fight through.

You talked about having family involved, I want to pivot here from talking about your professional life to your personal life. Do you mind sharing your recent run in with ethical lapses on other people’s behalf?

Oh my gosh. I do not mind sharing at all.

My mother passed away in 2015 pancreatic cancer, 29 days from diagnosis to death. So she knew the day she was diagnosed, she was terminal. She went home, she sat down, she wrote her obituary. It was brilliant. She passes away 29 days later. I of course do my daughterly duties. I submit the obituary to the local newspaper here in Jacksonville the Florida Times Union.

The obituary was written in first person, she wrote it, self-penned, she wrote every single word. I have the laptop still she wrote it on, I have the Word document, I got it all.

It was wonderful. Because of the relationship I have as a PR person here in Jacksonville a few of my media friends picked up on it, and Times Union did a story about the obituary and how great it was. Well, it was pretty damn great. Next thing you know…another friend whose husband happened to work at the TODAY show, she saw it on my Facebook, and saw the Times Union story. So suddenly it shows up on the TODAY show. Well, once it shows up on the TODAY show, Good Morning America’s not far behind, and CBS, and all of them. So, I hate the phrase went viral, but that’s what happened. It went everywhere.

It was an interesting time. I thought, well, this is kind of cool. My mom has kind of given me something to do, throughout the grief process. So, I immediately did what any good PR person does as the interview requests are coming in…I set up a Dropbox with high res images and captions, and I’ve got the obituary as a PDF, and a Word, and various things, so I can refer all of these editors and reporters.

So, it’s all good, and then it kind of goes away. Right?

A few months later, I’m sitting in the movie theater and a friend of mine, a PRSA member who lives here in Jacksonville but was from Richmond, Virginia, texts me a story from a Richmond paper. It is a story saying how wonderful a particular woman’s obituary was. Isn’t this fantastic and great? I look at it, literally look at the text, and it’s some older woman. She was 101, I think. Her picture next to my mother’s words, like straight up, all of my mother’s words.

So, I called my brother realized that, oh my gosh, somebody had plagiarized the obituary, basically just changed out the names and dates. Very, very personal details. But everything else was there, the lead, the middle, the closing graph. I mean, all of it. I mean, it was crazy.

So I, of course, get ahold of the newsroom. Actually, what I had done the night it happened was I started posting on the newspaper’s Facebook page going, “Hey, this is kind of cool. But it was cool the first time when my mother wrote it back in Jacksonville,” and so I was posting the links. So the next morning I get up, I really hadn’t slept much that night. I get up, I call the newsroom at 8:15 in the morning. I assumed they probably would be in a morning meeting of some sort, and they were.

Because when the gentleman answered the phone, I told him who I was. Turns out he was an assistant news editor. He said, we were just talking about you and were going to reach out to you. Will you do an interview with us? I said sure. I take the high road, of course … my mother would want me to. That “Isn’t it flattering that someone loves your words so much, mom, that they took them for themselves?” Great, fine. My position was this woman was over a hundred years old. It wasn’t as if they didn’t know she was not going to be alive for much longer, they had time to write something. Right? You’ve had time to write something.

Honestly, the bleeding heart in me also was very much, “This woman, this mom, deserved her own story,” right? Everyone has their own story. So that also kind of hurt my heart a little bit. So we get it resolved somewhat. A family goes on TV and actually lies and says, I gave them permission to use the obituary. None of that is true. I called the TV station the minute I saw that clip on Facebook and said “This woman is a liar. They did not have my permission. It’s absolutely that’s false. She’s plagiarized.” Fine. I never hear from the TV station, they never run another story, because I threatened them pretty well in that late night voicemail.

Within another month or so it happens again.

Oh my God. Are you kidding me?

Then it happens again. Montana, similar situation. I get ahold of the family, they cry, they apologize. They play the, Montana card, as I now call it. “We just live in Montana. Nothing like this ever happens in Montana. We didn’t know it was going to be viral. We didn’t know the newspaper would pick up on it.” I’m like, there’s like three newspapers in Montana. Like of course they’re going to pick up on it. Like what are you doing? So they apologize and we move on.

Since then it has been plagiarized 14 or 15 times now, where either in whole or in part. So sometimes it’s pretty much the whole thing. Sometimes it is the opening paragraphs, and the lead gets pulled. There’s a paragraph in the middle where my mother talks about her grandchildren. She said, “My greatest treasures call me Nana,” and she talks about them. The last paragraph, the part about, “You can look for me in the daffodils, you can look for me in the butterflies.” There are certain things that clearly resonate with folks. So, I try to track them down as best I can.

I know my mother would probably say, “Bonnie, just get over it. Don’t worry about it.” But for me and my brother, that was my mother’s last love letter to her family. It’s very personal and it was very private. She read it to us from her bed at hospice. She sat up in bed and read it to us a few days that week before she died. So, it’s just very … it’s very special.

I thought I was going to have a cool presentation on how an obituary goes viral, right? Instead it became this presentation on don’t steal people’s obituaries. Like what is wrong with you?

I love when folks say, “I’m going to write my own,” and I’m cool with that, that’s awesome, please do. Take that inspiration and writes your own. But please don’t use my mother’s words. Those were words that were meant for us, and special for us. But again, this whole thing of, “Well, it was on the internet, so I must be able to take it.” It’s like when people lift photos from online, with no attribution or anything. That’s honestly it’s all I asked for. When I do find them, I do ask people like, “You don’t have to rewrite it, just give attribution.” That’s all I ask for. I’m not asking people to take it down, to burn it, anything. All I ask for is simple attribution, and sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don’t.

If I don’t, I just let it go. Who has time to chase them all down? But I do have Google alerts set up on all these various phrases. That’s how I find them or someone will say, “Oh my gosh, here’s another one.”

The stories are crazy though. There was an Illinois one, it turned out to be a meth head. The obituary got printed, and family started arguing because they said “Aunt,” whoever she was, “She was a meth head. She never would have never written this. This doesn’t sound like her.” So the family started digging and realized it. So then a columnist got ahold of the story. I mean, this is crazy. Like it’s crazy town that this happens. But what are you going to do?

It’s a fascinating story. I think you’ve taken it in such a positive light, but I do think the kind of key element there is…don’t plagiarize other people’s intellectual property.

Absolutely, and, again, attribution goes a long way. I mean if for some reason you can’t get a hold of someone for permission, et cetera, at the very least just give attribution. It doesn’t take away from whatever from your blog post, or from your image. Now if you start using it to make money, that is a whole different thing, attribution ain’t going to cover your ass there, that’s for sure.

Here’s a fun fact, because I haven’t really put it out there. There’s a cookbook that is about southern funerals and they use excerpts from obituaries.

They used a part of it my mother’s obituary in the book. To me, that’s a whole different thing, because now you’re talking about a for profit situation. A publisher who absolutely should know about copyright, and IP, and fact checking, and all of these things. All they would have had to have done was contact me and ask permission, and of course I’d say yes. They could have taken it a step further and said, “Do you have a favorite recipe of your moms you’d like for us to include? You’re from the south,” They could have really turned it into something cool.

Holy Moly. Don’t steal, people. Don’t steal.

Moving beyond obituaries, is there any other areas that you’re concerned about facing the profession with regards to ethics, right now?

I’m concerned about a lot. I’ve got a lot of concerns. My two hot buttons are transparency and disclosure. Anybody that doesn’t disclose relationships that they have with businesses, or events, or activities, or what have you, it seems silly and it’s not this big picture, this big theory thing I’m going give you. It really to me is just being transparent and disclose when you have a relationship, or disclose when you have a partnership, because there’s just so much information out there now.

I’m not talking about necessarily #ad or #sponsoredcontent. I’m talking about just a straight up disclosure that they had a relationship with such and such. I hate to say it; I see more local media doing it. I’ve had this conversation with them with some colleagues around the same thing. Where you know that that person is getting something. There’s something on the back end, and then it’s not being disclosed, or going on air and talking about, a bunch of activities coming up in your town, and not disclosing that one of those activities is actually your client. That’s a huge problem.

The fact that you’re not disclosing it, and that the station is not requiring you to just close it. I hold both at fault, not just the person, but it’s not a big secret. Everyone knows that’s your client.

For example, I do corporate comms for this brokerage here in Jacksonville, but I have a couple clients on the side. They’re very gracious and let me have a little side hustle so I can afford to have my daughter go to dance competitions. I subcontracted with another PR person on a project. She needed some help with some influencers, and I just happened to have a few more relationships with that group than she does. So, it was an escape room that was new here in Jacksonville. I worked on it with her and just helped invite some influencers. Well our realtors’ young professionals group wanted to do a networking event. They wanted to do an escape room.

I said, “Oh my gosh, I have a contact. I worked with them.” I literally say, in full disclosure, “Did a little side hustle with them. Worked with them on an influencer campaign. Let me see if they’ll give us a discount.” Well, sure enough, they gave us a discount, and we got to do it. I disclosed it then and at every opportunity. It comes back to, it’s my reputation, it’s my name.

I use my powers for good, not evil. That’s kind of how I look at it. But again, that disclosure is so important, and being transparent, and also that goes back to the owning of stuff. Whether it’s a mistake, or relationship, or experience, or whatever it is. Just be who you are. Nobody’s going to think twice if you mention it. But mention it. 

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were ever given?

Just do the damn right thing. It really is just not that difficult to just do the right thing. I don’t know that anyone ever told me this, but if it feels wrong it probably is. I mean you go with your gut and here’s the thing, to some people it may not feel wrong. Okay, well that’s you. You do you boo. I tell you if it feels wrong to your gut, then don’t do it.

Your gut knows more so than your head does. But doing the right thing, you just can’t ever go wrong, if you do the right thing for the right reasons. I think that’s important, too, the right reason. Again, I fall on the left end of the spectrum, I’m on the blue side of things. So the bleeding heart in me is always wanting to try to help and figure out ways to do the right thing for the right reason at the right time. Again, with age comes the wisdom, and the experience, and it is easier – both from a fiscal perspective as it affects your job. But also I don’t care. There are just certain things that, you know what, this is important to me and this other thing may not be.

So, finding those priorities, finding that line of what your line in the sand is, what you will and won’t do is important.

I would say this, just as an aside, is what kicked me back into nonprofit work. I was working at an agency and did fun work. I had a client who we’d gotten him a clip in Sky magazine. It was a big deal. They wanted it framed, and they ordered it with fancy wood, I don’t know. They had two corporate offices, basically one in the Midwest and one here. I spent $7,000 to have these custom frames, and all I could think of my gut was telling me what I could do with $7,000 for some homeless kids, or for some three legged dogs, or whatever it was. That was what my gut was telling me.

My ethos, my heart was telling me, this is not where you need to be. This isn’t what speaks to you. So I went back to nonprofit work, and did that for a long time, and still do that. Your gut knows.

Listen to the full interview, with bonus content and bloopers here:

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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA

Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a senior strategic communications professional. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA. drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com
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